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Learning from recent experiences?

With the reconstruction in Kashmir having widely come to a halt (although far from complete in many areas) and the next reconstruction phase in the flood affected areas looming ahead, I want to direct attention to two very good studies that deal with the experiences in Kashmir – and are extremely valuable for the work coming up ahead in other parts of the country.

Perceptions of the Pakistan Earthquake Response Humanitarian Agenda 2015 Pakistan Country Study, Andrew Wilder, February 2008

In Aid We Trust: Hearts and Minds and the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005, Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das , 1st draft September 2010

In the light of the recent floods, a renewed influx of international aid organizations into Pakistan and a widespread national response to the disaster, a study published already more than 2 years ago on the Pakistan Earthquake becomes especially important (Andrew Wilder, Perceptions of the Pakistan Earthquake response). Through a number of interviews and group discussions and an extraordinary ability to judge objectively on a topic that is so laden with pre-assumptions and stereotypes, Andrew Wilder has put together a comprehensive overview over obstacles and successes during the emergency relief and the reconstruction effort in Pakistani Kashmir and the affected parts of NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa). Having worked myself in the area since just after the earthquake until this year, I find many topics just the way I experienced them, others are new to me but they sound perfectly reasonable. While such reports are often written from somewhere far away, with interviews carried out only with big stakeholders who often themselves have little idea what’s moving people in the field, this document is highly successful in representing the situation as it was experienced by people who have obviously actively engaged in the process of relief and reconstruction.

Issues covered include

  • The universality of humanitarianism

  • The implications of terrorism and counter-terrorism for humanitarian action
  • The search for greater coherence and integration between humanitarian and political/security agendas

  • The security of humanitarian personnel and the beneficiaries of humanitarian action

Important issues he addresses have already surfaced in the current aid efforts – acceptance of foreign staff, and the instrumentalization of humanitarian action in the light of strategic interests in the region.

While international aid workers were more likely to blame internationals for being culturally insensitive, most Pakistani respondents blamed non-local national staff for the majority of problems caused due to cultural insensitivity.

While local communities seemed to be willing to view the behavior of foreigners as simply being “foreign,” all Pakistani staff – especially female staff – were expected to behave as “locals.” This issue of “locals within locals” highlights the need in culturally diverse contexts to be aware of the potential pitfalls of making overly simplistic distinctions between “national and internationals,” “locals and foreigners” or “insiders and outsiders.”

In times were international NGOs are working in different provinces with extremely different ethnicities (Baloch, Punjabi, Pakhtoon, Sindhi etc.), this observation should be taken seriously. A Pakistani is not a local everywhere in his country.

The instrumentalization of humanitarian action to achieve counter-terrorism objectives by rewarding strategic allies and “winning hearts and minds” raises serious questions about the future of principled humanitarian assistance.

Kashmir not being an area of significant strategic interest to the West, this problem turned out to be mostly irrelevant. The US government did not even pursue terrorist organisations, which were delivering aid. In the most heavily affected area by the floods this will be a different scenario. Adding to it is the increased involvement of foreign troops in Pakistan as well and increased Army operations since the earthquake all over the country.

Stories like the following may be singular and not representative of how different state actors behaved in the region, but do portray one aspect of how politics interferes with humanitarian heavily.

The diverse range of aid actors in the earthquake response created some awkward moments. An aid worker based in an IDP camp described a request he received prior to a visit to the camp by US Senator John Kerry:  “USAID wanted the Cuban flag taken down and wanted al-Rashid Trust banners taken down. We refused to get involved in this issue. In the end the army got Al-Rashid to take down their banner but the Cuban flag remained. USAID made sure to take pictures from angles that didn’t show the Cuban flag.”

From my own experience in Kashmir and other areas in Pakistan, I feel “winning hearts and minds” by simply delivering aid is a ridiculous approach. As stated by Wilder it questions our humanitarian motives, but people’s ideology cannot be bought. Friends in Kashmir who till this date receive food aid from radical Islamist organisations are grateful for that support, but at the same time emphasize that they heavily disagree with their religious and political agenda. Similarly they react towards aid from Western organisations – they accept my values, we may discuss them again and again, but they would not adopt my views because I have supported them after their house collapsed. A recent study (Tahir Andrabi and Jishnu Das, In Aid We Trust) examines this dilemma and although this study may not be very comprehensive, it is the first time that I find this topic covered from such a scholarly approach and I hope it will be taken up in future in other areas as well.

As a Pakistani journalist notes:

“The notion that this was a golden opportunity for jihadi groups to win support doesn’t hold true – appreciation for their work doesn’t translate into political support. Jamaat Islami from day one was the most effective and efficient social welfare organization, but this hasn’t led to an increase in its popular support. People don’t vote on that account – it doesn’t translate into popular support. The same for the US – their role won’t “win hearts and minds.” In South Asia charity and charitable work has little to do with political work. The best known social workers don’t win elections. Edhi [one of Pakistan’s leading philanthropists] stood twice and couldn’t win more than five percent of the vote. Imran Khan with all his charitable hospital work struggled to win. People don’t want to waste their vote.”

An issue that became very obvious again during my recent visit in Tajikistan and has been an issue in Kashmir – overtly strict security policies. Since Pakistan’s image has plummeted even further since 2005, this is an issue on top of all NGOs’ agendas. It is linked closely to understanding the country as multi ethnic – Punjab is not Sindh, Kashmir not Waziristan. Each area should be addressed individually with all its characteristics. To say that “In Pakistan it is this way” is too simple.

The cultural sensitivity question highlighted that Pakistani culture is not monolithic. As in most countries there are major cultural differences between urban and rural areas, and along lines such as ethnicity, class, ideology, and sectarian affiliation. This diversity highlights the imprecision of terms used by aid agencies like “national” and “international” staff, or “locals” and “foreigners.” 25 One INGO manager described his problem of having to manage “locals within locals: ” “Ninety-eight percent of our staff are from other areas of Pakistan. Our national staff are not viewed by locals as “local staff,” and the national staff distinguish themselves from what they refer to as the “local staff.” Most national staff don’t speak Pashto – it’s a case of having locals within locals.”

The question of who is a foreigner and who is not was most pronounced in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Most Pakistanis view Kashmir as part of Pakistan, and Kashmiris as Pakistanis. This was also how many national and international agencies perceived their Kashmir operations, with PaK essentially treated as being another province of Pakistan. Many Kashmiris, however, viewed themselves as Kashmiris and not as Pakistanis. Several Pakistanis reported being quite surprised and shocked at the realization that after all their childhood education and indoctrination that Kashmir was part of Pakistan, that the Kashmiris they were interacting with did not perceive themselves to be Pakistanis. According to one Pakistani aid agency official, “I was very surprised to discover that Kashmiris view themselves as Kashmiris, and the rest of us, including Pakistanis, as foreigners.” According to another NGO manager:

Pakistani staff assume and say that we are all the same, whereas Kashmiris view themselves as different. Many Pakistani staff were not aware of these tensions and sentiments. We need to educate both national staff and not just expats about these issues.

The ignorance of many Pakistanis to internal, national issues is also problematic. Pakistani national media, especially English and even the ones who call themselves dynamic and liberal are completely unaware of what large parts of the country look like – Kashmir, the Tribals and Balochistan are rarely covered, the Northern areas are purely seen as a tourism resort. NGO staff from Karachi or Lahore may know less about these areas than some expatriates who have travelled there at least for leisure. Adding to it is the constant conflict between different Pakistani ethnicities – Punjabis are looked down upon as thiefes in the Khyber Pakhtookhwa, Pakhtoons are regarded as crazy fanatics in the North.

The relatively benign operating environment led several aid workers to question the appropriateness of what they perceived to be overly strict and inflexible security policies of many aid organizations. Some field staff in particular expressed concern that humanitarian imperatives were being trumped by staff security considerations that were based on poor security analysis resulting in inappropriate and unnecessarily rigid security policies.

Especially for NGO staff, the development of the Cluster Approach, closely linked to the Kashmir earthquake will be of interest. Wilder mentions to other studies in this regard. But also for lay people this chapter gives an insight into how NGOs work on the ground and how they coordinate. An issue widely present in Western media the recent weeks was the presence of humanitarian arms of Islamist groups. Mainly present in cluster meetings during the reconstruction phase, I have mainly felt they were not present because they were not interested – apparently they were often also not invited. For us as a very small organisation, the cluster meetings were extremely valuable. Once committed people were participating even slow government institutions could be moved to get things done on time.

There was a widespread perception that NGO participation in the clusters was weak. A number of reasons were cited for this including a lack of knowledge and understanding by NGOs of the Cluster Approach, as well as skepticism about the value added of committing valuable staff time to attend the large number of cluster meetings. According to the director of one international non-governmental organization (INGO), one of the only reasons to attend cluster meetings was that “if you didn’t go to meetings or provide information you weren’t on the radar screen.” There was also reluctance on the part of some NGOs to participate in what was a UN-led – and perceived by some to be “UN-centric” – coordination mechanism. Many local NGOs reportedly did not participate because they were either not aware of the meetings, often not invited, or because they could not understand or speak English sufficiently well to participate in or benefit from the discussions. As discussed in the ‘War on Terror’ section of this paper, the fact that there were few efforts to invite Islamic organizations to cluster meetings as well as to involve them in other coordination efforts was viewed by some interviewees as a “missed opportunity.” Many were big stakeholders, but as one interviewee noted, “there was a reluctance to invite them.”

USAID wanted to kill [the Cluster Approach] as they don’t want the UN to have a role. DFID also didn’t like it. In general donor coordination was secretive, not representative, Western, and unaccountable to the clusters. The donors don’t want “good humanitarian donorship” to work – they don’t want to lose sovereignty.

This is the first scholarly study where I read about camps of Indian Kashmiris living in Pakistan. The fate of these people, although incorporating those who Pakistan wants to ‘liberate’ living somehow stateless in a limbo is widely ignored in Pakistan.

Humanitarian assistance should be impartial and provided according to need…. After the earthquake, however, distinctions were made between the types of camps, which led to differing standards of services and support to people who had suffered the same catastrophe…. Many of those involved in the emergency response now believe that this distinction between camps was regrettable.

Finally one of the most problematic practices of international (less so national) NGOs is also addressed for the earthquake reconstruction phase – bypassing local civil institutions. With the argument, that local structures are corrupt and inefficient work is carried out without them, creating a(nother) parallel infrastructure state in the state for which in the long run no one will feel accountable for.

During the relief phase, and more problematically during the reconstruction phase, the civil administration in general and local government in particular has largely been bypassed.

There is still unfinished business in AJK and NWFP. The GoP has generously allowed the international community to come in and help provide relief to save people, but not to do long-term development. Now that the relief phase is over unfinished business will rise to the top of the agenda.

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.


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September 2010


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